A friend from Austin recommended that we take one of Berlin’s many walking tours. Generally, Joe and I enjoy exploring on our own – and do so frequently. But since his parents were going to be in town, we thought we’d take advantage of a little guided wandering. It was one of the best decisions – and some of the best-spent money – of our time in Berlin.
After Joe, his mom, and I all combed through various tour reviews and compared notes, we selected the “Best of Berlin” option from Brewer’s Berlin Tours. It certainly sounded promising. And let me tell you: even though we’d been in Berlin for weeks already, the tour was interesting, informative, never dull, and completely worth it. All seven hours of it!
So I’ll take you on a much abridged version of our journey. Here we go…
After meeting at a metro stop, we walked briskly towards the Mitte neighborhood – where Joe and I are staying. We passed by an empty lot, and our guide, Preston, told us that many such spaces exist in the city. They’re an ever-present reminder of the still-recent war and wide-spread absence of rebuilding. We then passed by a small, Italian café, noteworthy because it used to be the place where the previous chancellor would stop in for a pint after work. And help floundering tourists order their beers.
Our tour officially started at the “New Synagogue,” blown up so extensively in WWII that only its shockingly beautiful and ornate façade remains. Coulda fooled me – from the street, it looks whole and impressive. Lying behind that front remains an empty, eerie courtyard that will never be rebuilt. It used to hold over 3,000 worshippers. Just around the corner from the synagogue, Preston pointed out two adjacent buildings: one looked new and fresh, the other bombed-out and peeling. All over Berlin, structures stand thus juxtaposed. If it’s still standing and habitable, the government sees little need to repair it.
Next, Preston took us through an adorable courtyard and shared stories of its former inhabitants. The one-room apartments used to be squalid and cramped, as multiple families lived in them. They scheduled their working hours so that they could sleep in shifts. Several floors of inhabitants shared the same toilets, so many people just went out their windows. When petitioned, the city government denied the tenants’ application for additional facilities because they were deemed unnecessary (based on how often a healthy woman should have to use the bathroom). Now, those same apartments are naturally extremely fashionable and in-demand.
Monuments and Memorials
Passing through Mitte, we crossed onto Museum Island and strolled through one of the many flea markets supplying the city with cheap books, old beer steins, and unusual art and jewelry. Our walk then took us down along the River Spree, past Berlin’s shiny new parliament buildings, and to the front of the Reichstag. As WWII drew near its end, there was fierce fighting in Berlin around this elaborate and overblown building – the Soviets wanted control of it. Thousands of soldiers died in that struggle alone, but in the end the Soviet soldiers prevailed and took possession of the nearly meaningless building (the Nazis didn’t care about it at all). Talk about a Pyrrich victory.
On our way to the imposing and famous Brandenburg Gate, we passed by the monument to the fallen Soviet soldiers. On the front, back, and sides are printed the words: “Eternal glory to heroes who fell in the struggle against the German Fascist invaders for the freedom and independence of the Soviet Union.” German soldiers have to clean, polish, and repaint those words (and the whole monument) every couple years. Preston surmised that this was always a painful job.
The Gate itself is quite a site to see. Sitting atop its massive colonnade is a statue of the Greek goddess of Peace, Irene. But she didn’t always adorn this monument. It used to be Nike’s place, the goddess of Victory. But it was decided that Peace was more appropriate after the Holocaust.
Once through the Brandenburg gate, we marveled at the extremely accessible and lightly guarded American Embassy. After America’s security rules changed, they wanted to rebuild the Berlin embassy. But this required leaving a barrier of a couple hundred feet around the building. Unwilling to screw up their primary tourist attraction (the Gate), the Berlin government said “No, sorry.” And so, this American embassy is the most accessible in the world.
Taking a shortcut through a very interesting and modern building brought us to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe – more well-known as the Holocaust Memorial. I’d been before, but seeing its seemingly endless concrete pillars rising up in rolling waves still gave me chills. No names are printed anywhere, and the monument doesn’t even have signs or labels informing viewers what it is. The architect insisted on this – he wanted people to have their own experiences and form their own thoughts. Even after the Jewish community asked to have it dedicated to all victims of the Holocaust, the government refused.
Subtle (and not-so-subtle) Reminders of War
We then wandered by the site of Hitler’s bunker (it’s now covered with pre-fabricated concrete apartment buildings) and over to a section of the Berlin Wall. We passed a massive, imposing, grey building that looked rather undamaged and intact. Preston informed us that this building alone was spared during the heavy bombing of the area in WWII. And it was the Air Ministry Building during the war. Since the British made their bombing runs at night, they were incredibly inaccurate. So much so that they couldn’t hit a building the size of 10 football fields. The rest of the block was completely demolished.
The most disappointing part of the tour was our brush with Checkpoint Charlie. I’ll just say this: it’s not worth it. Look at the photo below, and you’ll have seen all you need to see. There is a museum tucked into the building above the checkpoint which keeps expanding as its owner collects more artifacts to display. But I heard it’s not that great.
We stopped in for a quick tour (and a shopping opportunity) at a massive chocolate shop that displayed whole buildings and sculptures created out of chocolate. It was like a museum. And the tour ended in the massive and impressively built-up Gendarmenmarkt, a broad square flanked by a French church on one side and a German church on the other. These churches are noteworthy for their matching towers, built simply for symmetry’s sake.
This is not, by any means, a comprehensive summary of our lovely tour. It just highlights some interesting parts and barely touches on others. If you’re in Berlin, I highly recommend it!
Here are a few more images and fun facts 🙂